Marc Alan Fishman’s Snarky Synopsis: C.O.W.L. #1
Glazing over the racks this week, a single book sparked a twinkle in my eye. A bold and graphic cover, with a simple acronym placed – C.O.W.L. – and it beckoned to me. A closer inspection… Chicago Organized Workers League. A glance inside: A mashup of Mad Men-esque style, combined with capes and my hometown? Sure, Astro City and other books have played plenty in the space. But none that were specific to Chicago. None that name drops streets like Ogden and Wacker and dumps an actual map in its inside cover. Call me soft (and pull back a stump!), but I couldn’t resist. Glad I took the chance, the book is tip-top.
Kyle Higgens and Alex Siegel certainly know their way around pacing. The book itself starts with a beautiful cold open action sequence. A soviet spy/super villain takes a team of heroes along for a ride as he makes way to escape from a botched assassination of a local Alderman. No better way to show case powers these days then the super villain on the run schtick. We meet Blaze, Radia, Arclight, and Recon of the Tactical Division – the SWAT team, if you will. After that, the rest of the book deals mostly with the Investigation and Patrol Division, which have less fancy code names. Higgens and Siegel crib style heavily from Top Ten; but skew less towards the fantastic and astonishing in lieu of gritty realism. The powers are more or less ordinary, it’s really a substance over style in the final presentation. In lesser terms, the writing duo delivers Law & Order by way of X-Men First Class, kept tightly packaged in a single city. It’s slick – but breathes easier because there’s little push to make the scope to wide-lensed after the initial salvo.
If there’s any bones to pick with the script, then they come solely entrenched in the Bechdel Test. The lone lady between the pages barely registers as more than a Sue Storm stand-in. Funny enough too, that she’s marginalized in her single scene moment with the COWL captain. I’ll note. though, that this is clearly a tongue-in-cheek moment. I’ll safely pray is just a set-up for a bigger and smarter payoff in the future.
Normally I’d have more running commentary about the script and dialogue. Frankly, there’s little else to say. But I can attest that the art chores by Rod Reis are plenty worthy of my prose. The presented style is a schizophrenic post-modern Marvel. Part Rotoscoped photos, part digital painting, part scratchboard scrawl, all daringly idiosyncratic. Reis channels Bill Sienkiewicz, Brett Weldele, and Brent Anderson amidst his own unique flashes. At its best the book is a chic and deconstruction of kinetic form and deciphered emotions. In lesser spots, it’s a slap-dashed race to the next panel. As a digital artist myself, it’s hard not to see the easy roads taken in certain shots, but Reis is clever when he hides his tracks. By integrating characters into a Rotoscoped background, and literally smudging them together, he creates a look we’ve seen before, but smartly never in this era.
It’s interesting to me how much I accept Reis’ styling here, over what might be considered a more technically proficient house style book from Marvel or DC. It sets in motion an opinion that has been evolving in my taste over the last year or so. The current trend at the big two – DC more so than Marvel by a magnitude of ten at least – is proportional, slick, and Photoshopped to a squeaky-clean finish worthy of Oxy-Clean. Reis and C.O.W.L. spit in the faces of Superman and his Pine-Sol brethren. Of course when you look at the comparison of artists in the aforementioned paragraph above, it should come as no surprise. But I digress. The fact is that modern technology can quickly suck the life out of a comic book, as talents artists see their pages merely as means to an end. It’s when boundaries are stylistically pushed that the medium shows why it’s still so unique and viable in the marketplace.
When companies choose to churn out the capes and cowls (no pun needed here), and don’t challenge their art teams, we lose. The biggest gripe that carries itself to art critics of our precious comics being ‘kitsch’ come largely due less to the by-the-numbers stories, and more towards the simple, repeated, and dull art. When one can’t tell a Superman comic from an X-Men book, it’s less because of the tight-knit, overly complicated costuming and more because the big-muscled, pin-up, repeats that coat the pages.
However, with Marvel’s recent efforts like She-Hulk, Rocket Raccoon, and Ghost Rider I can see the tides changing. To bring it back to “C.O.W.L.”, Rod Reis proves that when the art takes a chance to add layers of complexity to the script… the book itself becomes infinitely more interesting. Had this book been phoned in by any number of overseas half-price pencilers, inked by a team of cut-rate work-for-hires, and then colored by a finishing service, I doubt I’d be as chipper as I’ve been. Digression over.
Kyle Higgens, Alex Siegel and Rod Reis have captivated me. Sure, I was an easy sell given the real estate buried in the pulp. But beyond the cheap pop of recognizing my hometown, came a stylistic experiment that built up a simply police procedural into a universe building Mad Men with a set of super powers. It’s why Image continues to stand tall with a catalogue of boundary-pushing sequential fiction. Color me happy kiddos, and do yourself a favor and give a gander to the gams on this hot little number.